Clark County school superintendents recommend starting school year online

County's public health director says 'data and science of COVID-19 suggests it's just too dangerous to head back to the classroom right now'

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Washougal High School students head for the buses after the first day of the 2018-19 school year. School district superintendents throughout Clark County, including those in the Camas and Washougal school districts, are recommended an online start to the 2020-21 school year due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. (Post-Record file photo)

School district superintendents throughout Clark County, including those in Camas and Washougal, say students should not return to in-person learning this fall due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.  

In a press release issued by Educational Service District 112, eight Clark County school superintendents — from Camas, Washougal, Vancouver, Evergreen, Hockinson, Battle Ground, Ridgefield and La Center — said they will recommend their school boards implement remote/distance-learning for K-12 students this fall. 

Dr. Alan Melnick, Clark County’s public health director and county health officer, agreed that data surrounding COVID-19 cases in Clark County shows an in-person return to school would be “too dangerous” right now. 

“Clark County Public Health supports school superintendents who have made the very difficult decision to recommend starting the 2020-21 school year online,” Melnick stated in the press release. “We all agree that in-person education is best; however, the data and science of COVID-19 suggest it’s just too dangerous to head back to the classroom right now.” 

Washougal School District Superintendent Mary Templeton said school district leaders are planning to utilize an “improved and more accountable” distance-learning model than the one many Southwest Washington students experienced in the spring, during the first COVID-19 related school shutdown. 

“Clark County educators are committed to ensuring students continue to make progress in their learning during the pandemic, and ‘Distance Learning 2.0’ reflects that commitment,” Templeton stated in the press release.  

The superintendents said their recommendation was based on the latest health and science data related to COVID-19, as well as input from health department leaders, staff and families. 

“The virus growth trajectory in Clark County and our surrounding region makes it clear that resuming school in-person this fall could result in more widespread infections,” Vancouver Public Schools Superintendent Steve Webb stated in the press release. “That’s a risk we simply cannot take. Protecting the health and safety of our students and staff is our No. 1 priority.”

The superintendents said they would recommend their school district use the Washington Safe Start phases as a guide for reopening schools. In this scenario, school districts would use a blend of in-person and remote/distance learning once Clark County entered Phase 3. Currently, the county is in the second phase of the four-phase reopening plan. Phase 4 would continue the blend of remote and in-person learning, but allow more students to attend in-person classes. 

“School districts will continue to work closely with public health departments to transition eventually to a hybrid learning model, which combines in-person learning with remote learning,” Ridgefield School District Superintendent Nathan McCann stated. “The transition to in-person education will depend heavily on how much the virus is spreading in the community and the steps we take now to slow the spread of COVID-19.”

Union president: Camas teachers concerned about health, safety issues

In a June 24 virtual town hall, Camas School District Superintendent Jeff Snell told Camas families the district’s current plan included a blend of in-person and distance learning, with a fully remote option for families who did not feel comfortable sending their children back to the classroom. 

At that time, Snell said the district was focused on bringing younger, elementary school students back to the classroom five days a week with required use of face coverings and social distancing. The district planned to alternate the days that older students in middle and high school grades would have in-person learning to provide more distancing in the classrooms. 

Shelley Houle, president of the Camas teachers’ union and a fifth-grade teacher in the district, told the Post-Record earlier this month that she had received many comments from teachers concerned about returning to the classroom in the fall. 

“There is a high concern about health and safety — not just for themselves but for their students and their own children,” Houle said. 

Trying to plan for a hybrid model of in-person and distance-learning had left many educators feeling like they were in “the worst limbo,” Houle added, saying then that it seemed like Camas teachers would either start with remote learning or need to “pivot quickly.” 

The Camas teachers’ union is currently in the middle of bargaining with the district for a new, three-year contract. The current contract for Camas teachers expires Aug. 31. Houle said July 17 that bargaining was “more than halfway done,” but that the union and district would need to decide on conditional memos of understanding to address the temporary COVID-19 related requirements for educators. 

Houle said most Camas teachers are not on board with a full return to in-person learning in the fall. 

“It’s been stressful. We have over 450 members and there are probably as many different opinions,” Houle said. “But I’ve only heard from a few teachers who want full-on, ‘in the classroom no matter what.’” 

Teachers want to return to the classroom, Houle added, but they want to make sure doing so is safe for them, their students, families and the community. 

“We need to let science lead on this,” Houle said. “Everybody wants school to start and the kids to be in school, and there is one unifying thing that could bring us together — and that’s if everyone wore a mask, starting now.”
In the ESD 112 press release, Melnick agreed that the widespread use of face coverings would help bring students back to the classroom. 

“We all play a role in stopping the spread of the virus and helping schools to return to in-person learning,” Melnick stated. “By wearing a face covering, maintaining physical distancing and washing our hands frequently, we can help get kids back in the classroom.”